Rural Housing: The Challenges

In the UK, home ownership has very much become engrained as a societal norm. There’s a widespread expectation that everyone should be able to purchase their own home at some point in their lives. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, it does rely on enough affordable homes being constructed to remain a realistic aspiration rather than just a pipedream.

Unfortunately over the past 40 years, the volume of house building in this country has been woefully inadequate, driving a wedge between the dream of home ownership and its achievability. In many places the demand for housing far exceeds supply, but particularly in the most popular or desirable areas such as coastal and countryside locations. This problem is particularly stark in many rural areas, where less housing is generally developed due to a combination of landscape constraints, planning policy and some local resistance, but where demand is rapidly increasing as a result of  natural population increase and in-migration from elsewhere.

House prices in the rural parts of Sussex have risen by 41.4% since 2006, but local wages have only risen by 10.8% over the same period.

As a result of these trends, there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of the population unable to afford to purchase a home. Even dual-income households where occupants are in traditionally well-paid professional occupations are no longer able to get on the bottom rung of the ladder. This leaves those on low and average incomes at a significant disadvantage, a trend often reinforced by the dearth of suitable and affordable social and private rental properties.

Average rural property values across Sussex are approximately 12 times the average rural income.

It is further complicated by the fact that both existing and newly developed properties in rural areas are generally larger and possess features such as large gardens, both factors that attract an additional price premium. These trends have made it especially difficult for younger people and young families to purchase properties in the rural parts of Sussex, as they tend to have lower incomes, possess little or no transferable equity and generally have high mortgage requirements placed upon them. The speed of house price growth means the affordability gap is widening, making it extremely challenging for hard working people to keep up with the pace of change.

As a consequence, many young rural dwellers and those with longstanding employment, cultural and family ties to local communities are often increasingly unable to afford to live in the countryside. Not only does this have a direct impact on them and their families by breaking societal ties, it also affects local businesses and services which are reliant on them as staff and customers. Other impacts which result from fewer younger people and families in rural areas are the closure of local infant and primary schools, or the loss of local sports teams and community groups due to a shortage of appropriately-aged participants.

In 2 Sussex local authority areas, average house prices now exceed £400,000 and on standard mortgage terms (10% deposit and 3.5x income multiplier) would require a £40,000 deposit and an annual income in excess of £100,000.

A similarly important, but often less commonly identified trend is the effect that a shortage of appropriate housing can have. There are many older people who live in rural parts of the county with longstanding ties to their community, who would like to remain living locally but downsize from their existing property to something less costly and difficult to maintain. However, a lack of smaller and assisted living properties in many rural areas mean that many older people are often forced to move to urban areas where these are more numerous. Those who wish to remain may require greater levels of assistance to do so, which may come at a significant personal and public cost.

There are no quick-fix solutions to the issue of housing, largely because the issues surrounding its affordability and availability have become so significant and widespread.  However, it can be very easy for those already on the housing ladder to lose sight of the scale of the challenge that the vast majority of people now face in getting on that first rung, particularly in rural areas. One of the first steps in developing a response is for both policy-makers and communities to acknowledge and understand the scale of the issue and its impacts. Only from this point can appropriate mechanisms be developed to deliver a framework that not only delivers greater appropriate and affordable housing numbers, but focuses on tailoring them to the differing needs of localities.

“Supporting rural communities in Sussex to be vibrant and diverse places in which to live and work.”